Leaked memo asks nurses not to confiscate patients’ medications or weapons

The leaked memo, released by BC United, tells nurses they could face charges for confiscating a patient’s medications or weapons, a policy the BC Nurses Union says puts health care staff at risk.

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Nurses in the Northern Health region have been told for the past year not to confiscate patients’ medications or weapons, according to a leaked memo obtained by the BC United party.

The policy was created in response to the province’s decriminalization experiment that has resulted in an increase in patients possessing or using drugs while in hospital, according to the memo.

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The problem of open drug use in hospitals is not unique to Northern Health, but is widespread across the province and is putting nurses at risk, according to the president of the BC Nurses Union.

“This is becoming a widespread problem of significant magnitude,” Adriane Gear told Postmedia News. “Our members come to us very frustrated.”

BC United health critic Shirley Bond grilled BC NDP cabinet ministers about the memo during question period Wednesday, saying it’s evidence the government’s decriminalization policy has created a “free for all” in BC hospitals that is exposing healthcare staff to illicit substances.

“There are reports that methamphetamine was smoked in a unit just hours after the birth of a newborn baby,” Bond said. “How many more nurses have to be put at risk and children exposed to illicit hard drugs in our hospitals before the Prime Minister puts an end to this reckless decriminalization experiment?”

The party heard from a nurse who returned to work after maternity leave and was exposed to someone who smoked illicit drugs, BC United addictions critic Elenore Sturko said. The exposure was so severe that she needed emergency care and was advised to stop breastfeeding her baby, Sturko said.

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The memo, sent to staff at GR Baker Memorial Hospital in Quesnel on July 7, 2023, says that in light of the province’s decriminalization policy, which applies to anyone in possession of 2.5 grams or less of heroin, fentanyl, cocaine, methamphetamine or MDMA: “staff should not search a patient’s personal belongings or take or retain their substances.”

“Staff DO NOT remove personal items from the patient’s room, even if there is a knife or something considered a weapon less than (four inches) long,” the memo reads. “We use our best professional judgment on this and the risk factors for violence. The patient is asked to lock it up or have someone take it home.”

Nurses were told not to remove substances, vaporizers, pipes or other drug paraphernalia.

The memo also says: “We do not restrict visitors if we suspect patients are bringing substances. Only restrict if they are violent, drunk, or a problem. We do not restrict if they are leaving substances or are suspected (sic) of the same.”

The memo emphasizes that nurses are not law enforcement officers and “we have never been responsible for ensuring that patients/clients are not in possession of illegal substances.”

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The memo also states that staff will not be issued puncture-proof gloves because they should not go through patients’ belongings.

Staff were warned that it is illegal to search patients’ belongings and they could face possible charges and disciplinary action.

The memo advises staff not to call RCMP or security personnel to search a patient’s belongings. “The police are only called for gunshot wounds and stabbings and related concerns. “Instead, we can offer to lock items for patients if they wish.”

Mental Health and Addictions Minister Jennifer Whiteside did not directly address the memo during question period, but defended the government’s decriminalization approach, saying ending it “won’t save a single life, not a single life.”

Sturko said Whiteside should allow meth smoking in his office so he can “experience what healthcare workers face in their workplace every day.”

Gear emphasized that the union and nurses support harm reduction for patients, but it should not come at the expense of nurses’ safety.

“We want to provide quality, trauma-informed, culturally appropriate care to our patients,” she said. “But it cannot be at the expense of the nurses’ safety. This is just one more thing that makes nurses feel like their safety just doesn’t matter.”

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